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A 120-year-old cedar dies in Tampa, but is reborn as shapely bowls

How about some fourth-day-of-spring inspiration?

Here's a story about a very old, very dead tree that sprouted anew, metaphorically speaking.

As a youngster, this Eastern red cedar witnessed the first guests checking into the palatial new Tampa Bay Hotel resort. That was 120 years ago, when the foot traffic was all swishing skirts, bowler hats and parasols. Our tree had a primo vantage point not far from the front door.

In its twilight years, it looked down upon college kids in shorts and flip-flops, their earbuds tethered to iPods, as they rushed by on their way to class.

"It was probably planted with the original garden in 1892," says David Rigall, a landscape architect and member of Friends of Plant Park. "It grew next to the DeSoto Oak" — said to have shaded explorer Hernando de Soto during his meeting with a local Indian chief in 1539.

The cedar was easily 45 feet tall with a trunk about 30 inches in diameter when it died recently of natural causes.

"It went fast," Rigall says. "There was no blame, no mistakes. It just died. It had to come down or it would have started dropping limbs on people."

What takes more than a century to go up doesn't usually come down easily — or cheaply.

The Friends of Plant Park, a volunteer group that helps preserve and restore Tampa's first city park, doesn't make a move without the city of Tampa, which owns the park, and the University of Tampa, which leases it.

"We all sort of hold hands and do what needs to get done," Rigall says.

So the three conferred. The Parks Department decided the city forester could handle the job. Relief! But what would become of all that beautiful old cedar? It was a big chunk of wood — and Tampa history.

"It's a curious thing to have rare and wonderful trees go into a Dumpster," Rigall says.

Liz Reynolds, also a professional landscaper and a Friend of Plant Park, thought of her next-door neighbor, Mort Richter.

"I've seen his incredible woodworking," she says. "I thought he might be able to do something with it."

Mort, a wood turner who has been building 18th century-style American furniture for 50 years, got down to business in his garage workshop. He uses a lathe to turn hunks of wood into works of art that can fetch hundreds of dollars.

The tree came down in early January; Mort's been working ever since.

It wasn't easy. Parts of the tree have been dead for quite some time, which makes the wood dry and brittle. One piece exploded. But so far, Mort has produced three beautiful bowls from the old cedar.

"What makes them interesting is they're 27, 28 inches in diameter," he says. "They're enormous."

"Bowl" is such a pedestrian word for these works of art. They're polished and elegant, the graceful lines and whorls of the wood grain telling a lustrous story of a tree's long life.

And that's just the beginning. Mort's contemplating a sculpture, and who knows what else? He'll give everything to the University of Tampa.

"The law of the bowl jungle is, if someone gives you wood, they get something back," he says. "These are gifts to the school."

Liz hopes they'll end up on exhibit, a testament to the history of Plant Park. In the meantime, you can see them this weekend at GreenFest, the Friends' annual spring bash at the park.

It's fitting. The theme this year is "Celebrating 15 Years of Inspiration."

Penny Carnathan can be reached at penlyn1@tampabay.rr.com. For more garden inspiration, visit her blog, www.digginfladirt.com, or chat with other local gardeners at www.facebook.com/digginfloridadirt.

A 120-year-old cedar dies in Tampa, but is reborn as shapely bowls 03/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 4:30am]

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